Rethinking Christian Unity

One of my favorite stories is about the great evangelist D.L. Moody when he attended an “Exclusive” Plymouth Brethren convention.

The conference hosts had put up a large banner in the conference room that read, JESUS ONLY.

After one of the sessions ended, someone left the door open. While the conference attendees were sleeping, a wind blew into the doorway and knocked part of the banner down. The following morning, when everyone walked into the conference room, the sign read, US ONLY. The part of the banner that had the letters JES had been torn down.

A Divine rebuke with a hint of humor sprinkled in.

US ONLY was the message the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren were unwittingly sending to the world.

I have often said that sectarianism, elitism, and exclusiveness are like body odor. Everyone else can smell it except those who have it.

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ character is His radical inclusivity. When Jesus walked this Earth, He despised the spirit of separatism, elitism, and self-righteousness (Mark 9:38-40). And He still does today (Hebrews 13:8 NKJV).

Augustine’s famous line still holds true: “In essential, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

These essentials of the faith embody what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity—“the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” (An earlier version of the same idea was put forth by Vincent of Lerins: “Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all.”)

In this post, I’d like to make a few observations about the “non-essentials.”

To put it in a sentence: If the perfect interpretation of the Bible were the standard for Christian fellowship, then I would have had to disfellowship myself twenty years ago! I’m still learning, thank God, and my interpretations of Scripture are maturing. None of us has a corner on the truth. And if a person thinks they do, they’re deluded. In the words of Paul, “We know in part.” (1 Cor. 13:9)

I have to wonder what will happen when Jesus returns. I can imagine all the Christians who specialized in “perfect doctrine” passing out after they discover who made it into the kingdom. Angels will be running around all over the place with smelling salts to wake them up!

The church of Jesus Christ is one. But we are called to maintain and guard the unity of that oneness (Eph. 4:2-3).

Let me rehearse a true story on this score.

Many years ago, I watched two very different groups of Christians meet together to express their oneness in Christ. One group was charismatic; the other wasn’t. After a few joint meetings, the sparks began to fly.

I could rant on about the war-story details, but I’ll spare you. Let me just say that a few months after we merged together, we witnessed a church split. And our strained efforts at preemptive peacemaking and spiritual finessing couldn’t prevent it.

Yet with our garments still smoking, those of us who remained together came to an agreement. An agreement that would change my life. It was this: that all of us lay down our view of spiritual gifts at the foot of the cross. So we did.

Each one of us agreed to drop whatever we thought or experienced about the working of the Holy Spirit. We died to it completely. We gave it up. And we asked the Lord to teach us all over again as little children (Matt. 18:3).

From that point on, our entire focus shifted from what we thought we knew about the Holy Spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. We resolved to strip down to Christ alone, and we set our eyes exclusively on Him. After about a year, something miraculous occurred. There rose up—out of death, out of the grave in the newness of life—the gifts of the Spirit. But they didn’t look like anything we had seen in the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. And they certainly didn’t look like anything in the Church of Christ tradition. (All things look different in resurrection.)

Those of us who remained and committed to toughing out the storm were “built together.” And I experienced something I had only read about in the Bible—I saw two very diverse groups of Christians love one another through their differences. The result was what Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 1:10.

This experience, while bloody at first, proved to me in living color that the unity of the faith is more than a pious ideal. Healthy church life is nonsectarian, nonelitist, and nonexclusive. It may involve much long-suffering, forbearance, and dying a thousand deaths. But that’s exactly what Paul said the price would be for preserving the unity of the Spirit: With all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:2-3 NKJV) 

This article was originally posted on Frank’s blog, “Beyond Evangelical” at www.frankviola.org and is part of the “Rethinking” blog series.

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Frank Viola
FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.